What is STEAM Education: The Future of 21st Century Education

James Braun
April 17, 2023

We’re always hearing about the huge benefits of STEAM, but what does a STEAM education program actually entail?

Is STEAM education the key to unlocking the hidden potential in millions of students worldwide? Can STEAM education prepare students to gain the 21st century skills needed to work in careers experiencing exponential growth? 

As STEAM has gained popularity among educators, parents, administrators, and even corporations, it’s an important element in our society’s future as a whole. 

Today, we’re covering everything you need to know about STEAM education and what it can bring to the future. 

What is STEAM?

STEAM education is an approach to learning that prioritizes Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. The STEAM approach is designed to foster student inquiries, explorations, deeper discussions, and problem-solving. 

While STEAM education might seem like it prioritizes hard skills, especially skills related to math and engineering, it is meant to help students develop other 21st century learning skills that are just as important when pursuing an education and an eventual career. 

How does STEAM education help students?

We know what STEAM education is, but how does it actually help all students learn more efficiently? STEAM encourages students to think creatively, ask thoughtful questions, and engage in more creative problem-solving in all of their lessons. 

How students benefit from STEAM learning:

  • Experiment and take risks 
  • Engage in teamwork learning activities
  • Learn important critical thinking and problem-solving methods
  • Spark imagination and creativity 

What is the Difference Between STEM vs STEAM?

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. STEM programming in educational spaces was prioritized due to concern that future generations were lacking the critical skills needed to drive our economy forward. 

From its inception, STEM programming emphasized innovation, creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, and other crucial 21st century learning skills. However, it became increasingly clear that the arts field was needed to create the complete set of skills needed. 

The difference between STEM learning and STEAM learning isn’t so much a difference, as it is a completion. STEAM’s inclusion of the arts creates a multi-disciplinary approach to important skills related to technology and human advancement. 

What STEAM Education Includes

  • Science: weather, animals, volcanoes, astronomy, molecules, anatomy 
  • Technology: movement, machines, electricity, virtual reality
  • Engineering: physics, building blocks, CAD 
  • Arts: painting, drawing, self-expression, photography, stop motion 
  • Mathematics: addition, subtraction, division, algebra, geometry, statistics

The History of STEM and STEAM in the Classroom

While the ideas behind STEM education have been around since Leonardo da Vinci collided arts and science together in his works of art.

A STEAM class is a new concept, but its adoption has been widely recognized and lauded by educators, students, and parents. Here’s the short, but important history of STEAM education so far: 

  • 2001 - STEM is introduced in 2011 by science administrators at the U.S. National Science Foundation. 
  • 2006 - Georgette Yakman, a researcher and educator, introduced STEAM. STEAM incorporated the ideas of creativity and innovation often recognized as “Art” into STEM education. 

Despite its short history, STEAM’s rapid adoption and tales of success have already spoken volumes.  STEAM education is a reliable path to new ways of problem-solving, innovating, and purposefully linking fields of learning. 

Why is STEAM so Important in Education? 

As the world becomes increasingly dependent on the skills associated with technology and STEAM, our students need to be equipped to fill the jobs of the future. 

In addition, a more widespread adoption of STEAM education helps underserved youth pursue a career in STEAM and STEAM. This can help to provide all students with the access and education needed to pursue careers in STEAM.

STEAM statistics that need to be improved:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs in STEAM pay a base salary that is almost 3x higher than non-STEAM positions, and the number of STEAM occupations is set to grow. In fact, an estimated 821,300 STEAM job openings will become available by 2030, and the median annual wage for STEAM jobs was $86,980 in 2019. Non-STEM jobs averaged annual wages of $38,160. 

As the skills associated with STEAM become the prominent skills of the future workforce, students should be prepared to land those jobs, excel in their careers, and change the world for the better. It all starts with STEAM education. 

STEAM Improves Science Achievement Across the Board

Regardless of socio-economic status, geographic location, or school size, many studies have found that STEAM education leads to improvement in students’ achievements in both math and science. 

A study published on ArtsEdSearch found that:

  • Students who received nine hours of STEAM instruction made improvements in their science achievement
  • Students who received the STEAM instruction from a well-trained teacher jumped from the 50th percentile to the 63rd percentile in the district science assessment

STEAM education provides new ways of exploring old topics. STEAM’s core aim is to have students navigate real-life experience through problem-solving. This allows students to immerse themselves in meaningful learning processes in every lesson. 

  • Instead of reading about molecules, students use design thinking to build them
  • Instead of researching dinosaurs, students can head into the Mesozoic Era on a virtual field trip 
  • Instead of a history lesson on computer programmers, students can interview real programmers 
  • Instead of looking at photos of tall skyscrapers, students can build their own using digital makerspaces

STEAM education transforms every lesson plan into an action-based experience for students. 

STEAM Proves an Equal Playing Field for More Students 

STEAM classes fosters inclusivity and creativity. It allows every student a chance for real success in their education. 

Suddenly, the student who is an active learner doesn’t need to sit in their seat through a long lecture about environmentalism. Instead, active learners can stand up, stretch out, and walk through a virtual field trip to the zoo using educational VR from Kai XR. 

STEAM education can also employ virtual reality to increase critical thinking, empathy, and other crucial social and emotional skills needed to excel in school and in life. 

STEAM Fosters Creative Thinking

More creative thinking is never a bad thing. With creative thinking and problem-solving at the heart of STEAM education, no question is too cumbersome and no problem is too big to explore. 

There is a six-step process used to create a STEAM-centered classroom. Each step is designed to address problems and develop creative solutions to these problems. This process, in turn, can be applied to any problem a student might encounter, whether interpersonally or professionally. 

Six steps to STEAM-Centered Classes:

  • Focus: Identify the problem or the central question 
  • Details: Observe and document key elements that contribute to the problem or question 
  • Discovery: Research current solutions, and learn skills needed to address the problem or question. 
  • Application: Create a new solution using your skills, processes, and knowledge. 
  • Presentation: Share your ideas with others and facilitate discussion and feedback 
  • Link: Reflect on others’ suggestions or proposed improvements to your solution, and revise as needed. 

How to Emphasize STEAM in Your Classroom

STEAM learning sounds great. But how does an educator create a STEAM-powered classroom? How can a STEAM teacher actually begin to facilitate learning? 

Connect STEAM with Literacy 

Effective STEAM education does not mean ignoring literacy and language arts. In fact, it’s the opposite. STEAM education should connect literacy within its lessons. Most often, the literacy part of STEAM comes into play through communication. 

For example, if a group of students solve a complicated engineering issue, they will also be tasked with communicating their processes, either through written word or verbal communication. Because STEAM education is so intertwined with problem-solving and teamwork, the communication element will always ensure literacy is connected in every lesson.

STEAM Literacy Examples:

  • As a final step, students can communicate how they solved their “big problem” by recording and editing a podcast. 
  • Students can create a “live report” from their virtual field trip as a recorded newscast. 
  • Students can work together to create a newspaper feature that describes how they reached their amazing outcome. 

STEAM Education Programs Encourage Students to Explore Options Rather Than Assign Outcomes 

In some circumstances, group projects become tiresome because they require the same framework repeated in the classroom. With these approaches, students are less engaged, less curious, and less likely to retain the lessons learned. 

A typical group project looks like:

  • Random assortment of students chosen to work together 
  • Students work together to research a topic
  • Students create a written report on the topic
  • Students present their report on topic

In these circumstances, the student with the best writing skills usually ends up doing the bulk of the work, because it’s the easiest solution. By the end of the many group projects, the students have only learned how to gather and regurgitate information. 

In contrast, STEAM group projects allow for inquisitive questioning and deeper creative exploration. 

A STEAM group project looks like:

  • Students with different learning styles are thoughtfully combined in a group
  • Students are asked to build a tower using only paper 
  • Students work together to engineer, troubleshoot, laugh, and finally build their tower
  • Students are then invited to share each version of their tower, why it didn’t work, and the next steps they took to create a better solution. 
  • I.e. exploring via makerspaces and emphasizing process over outcome. 
  • Examples 

Blend Social and Emotional Learning Into Lesson Plans 

Since STEAM lessons are always grounded in inquiry, problem-solving, and process-based learning, students invariably learn social skills as they engage in learning. 

This is especially important for younger learners. Since younger children are more open to new ways of learning, they tend to understand social emotional learning practices faster than their adolescent counterparts. 

Social emotional learning has huge benefits in school and in the world:

  • SEL skills help students build and maintain social relationships.
  • SEL practices raise students' self- and social awareness.
  • SEL teachings help students develop decision-making skills.
  • SEL skills allow students to practice and perfect self-management.
  • Students of SEL practices have better emotional control.

Examples of social emotional learning a STEAM teacher can consider:

  • Offer students access to cultures and professionals they otherwise would never meet through virtual reality field trips.  
  • Offer students virtual reality field trips related to historical movements to learn how empathy and understanding bring positive change to the world. 

Use Virtual Reality to Provide Deeper Understanding of Complex Topics 

Virtual reality opens many amazing opportunities for science education. Research shows that VR can help students with comprehension,

Using VR, students no longer have to rely on flat pictures of fossils to understand what the Earth looked like billions of years ago.  

Using simple technology tools, students can actually watch the world come alive around them as they walk through it on a virtual field trip

Examples of VR in a STEAM classroom:

  • Science trips to explain complicated topics like overfishing and environmental change
  • Arts field trips that allow students to see what goes on backstage to create a Broadway musical 
  • Career exploration that allows students to visit professionals on virtual field trips at their apex of their career 

Use Makerspaces to Explore and Foster Further Creativity

Makerspaces are also central to a STEAM classroom. Makerspaces are workspaces where people with common interests can meet, socialize, and collaborate on shared interests. The maker movement in education is based on hands-on learning through building things.

Makerspaces are often used to explore interests in STEAM, like:

  • Computers
  • Machining
  • Science
  • Digital art
  • Electronic art

Makerspaces don’t need to be fully-equipped robotics labs to serve as effective STEAM learning devices. Instead, the most important element of a successful makerspace is that it’s a physical or digital space whose sole purpose is to facilitate creation.

Makerspaces can be set up with supplies to teach anything from paper-based construction to building kinetic machines. They are a great way to encourage students to try hands-on learning. 

Makerspace Ideas for middle school STEAM classrooms: 

Try out a digital makerspace right now! Kai XR Create is a drag-and-drop digital makerspace where your students can reach for the stars, touch down on the moon, and build a town that’s out of this world—all from their desks.

Use Virtual Field Trips to Explore Topics in a Deeper Way 

A great way to explore virtually any STEAM subject is through Kai XR’s field trips. Students can explore their interests in everything from engineering to the arts by voyaging on a field trip that requires no bus fare. 

Field trips have been a staple of education in the United States for decades. However, they are on the decline due to budget constraints and an increased focus on standardized testing prep.

Despite their decline, field trips are still a powerful teaching tool, and a great way to increase students’ critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and interest in various topics. 

Kai XR virtual field trips to try: 

At Kai XR, immersive learning can happen despite logistical and financial constraints. From their desks, students can both scour the depths of the sea and sail through the solar system.

Extended reality offers everyone the opportunity to broaden their worldview and immerse themselves in STEAM learning. 

Ready to get started?

Kai XR’s STEAM Club

Our signature STEAM Club is our free educator community where educators can get access to free activities & resources to start implementing a robust STEAM curriculum. These activities can  be accessed from any network or digital device, making it easy for educators to incorporate STEAM education into their teaching no matter where their students are learning. Get started today with our free resources by booking a live virtual demo.

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In memory of my sunshine, Ky(ra) G. Frazier. Love you to the moon and back.